Background knowledge: How ELL programs can activate it
By Erick Herrmann

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This is the second of a two-part article on background knowledge and its impact on English language learning. See Part 1.

There are many techniques teachers currently use to both activate students' prior knowledge and actively build background knowledge with students. Teachers are likely familiar with the K-W-L chart; but this technique is not always employed in a way that benefits students. Other techniques we will explore include direct and indirect experiences, using the students' native language, incorporating in nonlinguistic representation and utilizing small, flexible group instruction.


Which method works best for engaging students' background knowledge?
  • 1. K-W-L
  • 2. Direct and indirect experiences
  • 3. Native language
  • 4. Nonlinguistic representation
  • 5. Small, flexible group instruction

1. K-W-L

On the K-W-L chart, teacher discuss with students what they "know," what they "want" to know or learn, and later on what they "learned." There are a few things to keep in mind if you use this strategy with students. First off, it is best to begin by activating prior knowledge or building background knowledge of the topic. In this way, when we ask students, "What do you know about ______ ?", they will have something to say. For example, have the students read a related story or article, watch a short video clip or do an activity with picture files (described below).

After activating prior knowledge or building some background knowledge, begin with what students know, think they know or their hypotheses. As students report, write verbatim what they say. This can be difficult for teachers, especially if students have misconceptions. However, these can provide for authentic editing experiences in the future and allows for open brainstorming of topics.

Proceed with what students would like to learn or the questions they have about the topic so far. Throughout a unit of study, questions can be added to the chart as they are asked. Teachers often neglect the third column, "what we have learned." Be sure to build in time to add to this column at regular intervals, especially when you have answered questions or clarified misconceptions that arose while filling out the first column.

2. Direct and Indirect Experiences

One of the most effective ways to build background experience, of course, is through facilitating students actually having the experience. Experience is the best teacher, as they say. Field trips and other experiences provide rich learning opportunities for students. However, in light of budget cuts and limited resources, indirect experiences can also be beneficial to students. Websites, simulations and videos can be an alternative to actually experiencing an event. Obviously, it is impractical or impossible for students to experience a historical event, for example, and indirect experiences can be valuable in these cases as a way to build background and student interest.

3. Native Language

The majority of English learners in U.S. schools come from Spanish-speaking homes. Because much of academic English is Latin-based, students can be directed to look for word roots and cognates that may help them understand vocabulary and concepts. Students should be taught about false cognates, words that are similar but have a different meaning in English.

Having students clarify concepts in their native language is also a helpful practice. Students can discuss experiences, prior knowledge and clarify what they are learning in their native language. This serves the dual purpose of helping students to more deeply understand the content being learned and validating that students' native languages are valued and celebrated in the classroom.

4. Nonlinguistic Representation

The use of picture file cards, gestures, tableau and other nonlinguistic representation techniques also helps students to both activate prior knowledge on a topic as well as build background knowledge. For example, use pictures files — either physical pictures cut from a magazine or printed from the internet, a file of pictures displayed on a projector or tablet device, or do a book walk to show students aspects of the topic being studied. Often, pictures that are highly engaging and show some aspect of the topic spark interest and conversation in students while building background knowledge or activating prior knowledge.

Gestures, body movements and tableau, where students physically represent a scene, topic or concept with their bodies, are a fun way to help students make connections and build background. Show students how you might represent the concept physically by moving your arms or have them come up with a movement that shows their understanding.

5. Small, Flexible Group Instruction

Teachers employ small-group instruction for a variety of purposes in the classroom. If you find only a few students need additional instruction to build background knowledge, a small group can be a way to deliver it. Using one or more of the techniques mentioned, such as reading books and articles about the topic, looking at pictures, watching a short video, etc., help fill in any knowledge gaps that students may have around the topic.

It is important to keep these groups flexible; each student will have varying areas of deep knowledge and/or experience and areas that need additional attention and focus. Through assessment and questioning, teachers can determine the students that would benefit from additional small-group instruction.

Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant specialized in teaching English learners, and he runs Educating English Learners. Erick has worked with thousands of teachers across the nation to help them improve their instructional practice and increase academic achievement for all students.


Echevarrķa, J., Vogt, M.E., & Short, D. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® Model. (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2009). Background knowledge: The missing piece of the comprehension puzzle. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Marzano, R. J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core State Standards, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington D.C., 2010